Intelligence and inspiration are rare commodities these days at the United Nations. But a 24-year-old British actress awakened the sleepy diplomatic community at Turtle Bay on September 20 with a stirring, impassioned speech about gender equality and feminism. Emma Watson’s eloquence and courage were rewarded with a standing ovation. It was richly deserved.
“Fighting for women’s rights has too often become synonymous with man-hating,” said the newly named U.N. Women Goodwill Ambassador. “If there is one thing I know for certain, it is that this has to stop.” She is right.
But how did we come to conflate feminism with man-hating? Why are women, asked Watson, choosing not to identify as feminists? Turns out, there is blame enough to go around.
Let’s begin with the feminists themselves. For years, many notable “radical feminists” publicly spewed virulently anti-man sentiment. While it galvanized some, it alienated many –including men. Feminism became the “F” word.
Consider the editor for Ms. Magazine, Robin Morgan, who famously commented, “I feel that man-hating is an honorable and viable political act.”
Feminist writer Andrea Dworkin routinely hurled profane invectives at men, unprintable here, in her zealous advocacy.
A feminist dictionary published some 30 years ago (Pandora Press, 1985) described males as “mutants representing a deformity of the female.” Gee, that’s helpful.
The feminist identity wasn’t advanced any when the official journal of the National Organization for Women allegedly printed the following in January of 1988: “The simple fact is that every woman must be willing to be identified as a lesbian to be fully feminist.” Ti-Grace Atkinson, an early member of NOW who founded the group The Feminists, added, “Feminism is the theory, lesbianism is the practice.” Huh?
Frankly, I consider such rants, while counter-productive, perfectly understandable. Even merited. One can argue (and many have) that misogynist men are largely to blame.
For years, some American leaders with a Neanderthal mentality publicly declared, as President Grover Cleveland did, that “sensible and responsible women do not want to vote.” Writings and remarks by Hemingway, Eliot, Freud, Menken and Mailer tended to feed a misanthropic view of women. Religious leaders like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson disparaged feminism and, by implication, the notion of genuine equality.
For generations, male dominated society, convinced that women were inferior, sought to subjugate and oppress them politically, socially and economically. From whence the movement of feminism arose to give women equal opportunities in education, employment and compensation. Yet, equal rights in all aspects of society is an ideal not fully attained.
To her credit, Watson referred to these as basic “human rights.” Indeed, they are. But the Brown University graduate had the sagacity to understand that equality will continue to be elusive unless men are, in her words, “invited or feel welcome to participate in the conversation.”
Enthusiastic applause greeted the actress when she offered an olive branch, “Men, I would like to take this opportunity to extend your formal invitation. Gender equality is your issue too.”
Getting men on board will not be easy. Altering generations of gender prejudice born of ignorance is a daunting challenge. But history is replete with prominent men who embraced feminism. Frederick Douglass was not only an abolitionist, but an eloquent advocate for women’s suffrage. Gerald Ford, as president, was a powerful voice in support of the Equal Rights Amendment. John Lennon was the best-known male artist of his era to embrace feminist ideals (his composition “Woman” was an ode to his wife and all women).
For the dream of gender equality to come true, men need to be advocates for change in both their words and deeds. But so do women.
Trolling the Internet for reaction, I was surprised at the criticism of Watson’s message. Much of it came from women. It seemed petty and silly. These critics don’t get it. Neither do women like actress Shailene Woodley who quipped to Time magazine that she could never be a feminist because she loves men too much. A stab at humor or hyperbole, perhaps. But it proves Watson’s point --even today people equate feminism with man-hating.
The best known feminist of our day, Gloria Steinem, has never been a man-hater. Being pro-woman does not demand being anti-man. Instead, she turned the inequality equation on its head: “Women are always saying, ‘We can do anything that men can do.’ But men should be saying, ‘We can do anything that women can do.’”
Steinem reached out to men without disaffecting them. Emma Watson is now taking up the torch with her “HeForShe” campaign. Lending her considerable celebrity to the cause will, hopefully, elevate the equality dialog and foster change.
I live in a household of women. As the only man, I sometimes feel outnumbered and outwitted. But I also feel blessed by their love, wisdom and intelligence. They are every bit my equal. So why, then, are they not treated equally when they step beyond the threshold of our home and into the world?
I don’t presume to speak for women. But I can speak with them.So Emma, count me in.